Year XLVI, 2004, Number 1, Page 3
The Decline of Europe
The leading states of the European Union, and in particular of the eurozone, are dogged by a growing sense of decline. But this is still a confused awareness, as demonstrated by the fact that it is the individual states, their production systems and their societies that are said to be in decline, rather than Europe as a whole, and also by the fact that no one appreciates the historical as opposed to cyclical-economic nature of Europe’s decline, or understands the causes that prompted it in the first place and that are ensuring its continued deepening. But Europe is in decline, and there is a vague realisation of this fact. The quality of civil cohabitation in Europe is being damaged by lack of confidence. The future is perceived as dark and uncertain. The spirit of innovation and of enterprise and the will to plan are frustrated at every turn.
This decline concerns, first of all, international politics, and its effects have emerged with stark clarity in the events surrounding the Balkan crisis and, more recently, the war in Iraq. In this latter case, the Europeans have been obliged not only to watch, helpless, the unfolding of a senseless war that they did not even want, but also to sustain a considerable share of the enormous costs it has generated and continues to generate.
That Europe no longer carries any weight on the international political stage, and is subject to the hegemony of the United States, is hardly a new discovery. It is a reality that became clear at the end of the Second World War, even though the phenomenon was subsequently — during the Cold War — concealed by the threat that the presence of the Soviet Union represented to both the US and Europe. The fact that the United States’ hegemony had a clear rival in the USSR prevented the Europeans from feeling dominated, and gave them the sensation that they were contributing to the realisation of a joint project and to the defence of common values.
This is no longer the case today. Now, the danger lies not in the risk of a possible attack from outside, but in terrorism fed by Islamic fundamentalism, whose network extends to the United States and all the countries of Europe. And American hegemony certainly does nothing to guarantee European security in the face of this danger. It is a fact that Europe could play a decisive role in the attempt to eradicate evil at grass roots level, favouring unity, economic development and the democratic evolution of the states of North West Africa and the Middle East, with which it enjoys a positive relationship characterised by geographical proximity and close interdependence. But its impotence prevents it from playing an effective role in this area, or in any other sensitive world region. As a result, Europeans are finding, more and more often, that they serve merely to make up the numbers in the international equilibrium. Whereas new actors, like China, India and Brazil, are entering the world political stage, and old actors, like Russia, are making a comeback, Europe is exiting the scene and counting for less and less in the strategic calculations both of the only major power that currently exists and of those that are emerging.
The European governments are perfectly aware of Europe’s rapid international slide, just as they are aware oft he need for European foreign and defence policies. But they believe, or more accurately, they feign to believe, that this problem can be resolved by strengthening collaboration between the Union’s member states (or between some of them), through the formation of small multinational task forces or the achievement of a degree of coordination of arms production; and possibly by creating figures who, despite being entirely devoid of the power to make and implement decisions in Europe’s name, can represent the Union formally and allow it to “speak with a single voice”. Clearly, this is not the way to halt Europe’s international decline.
Equally shocking is economic decline of the leading eurozone countries, which are recording, in relation to their GDP, extremely weak, and sometimes even negative growth. Their unemployment levels are sky high and their production systems are becoming less and less able to fend off the growing competition from eastern Asia. The euro, despite its apparent strength, has failed to take off as an international currency, and continues to be conditioned by the trend of the dollar; at the same time, depreciation of the dollar is cancelling out the balance of payments surplus of the countries belonging to economic and monetary union, but in the absence of any compensatory growth of these countries’ domestic markets. There exists no European policy to re-launch public spending — in spite of the fact that a growing number of countries have exceeded or look set to exceed the budget deficit limit imposed by the Stability Pact — and no infrastructure development policy. The number of production sectors in real difficulty is multiplying, as is the number of financial crises.
Politicians and observers alike cannot help but note this trend. But they fail to appreciate the true nature of it. This much is clear from the fake remedies that are proposed, the first of which consists of overcoming the so-called rigidity of the labour market and dismantling, at least in part, the welfare state, which was built on the social achievements that have made Europe the world region that has accomplished most in the fight for social justice and better civil cohabitation. And all this in the name of a sort of social Darwinism whose logic is that of enriching the rich while condemning a considerable section of the population to an existence of insecurity, marginalisation and poverty. The second is to push the European Central Bank into lowering further the already extremely low base interest rate, a measure that would create practically no extra room for manoeuvre, thereby failing to learn from the example of Japan, which, despite having almost zero interest rates, has nevertheless endured an extremely protracted period of stagnation.
In reality the causes of Europe’s economic decline lie in the incapacity to act that is a consequence of its division. They are political and institutional, that is to say, structural causes, not ones linked to economic trends. This is not to deny that the current downward trend will go through cyclical phases. But it will not be reversed until Europe’s political weakness has been overcome. It is this political weakness that prevents the euro from taking its place alongside the dollar as an international currency, discourages the labelling of contracts, particularly oil supply contracts, in euros, and reduces international investors’ faith in the European currency. In this way the euro, and with it the whole of the eurozone’s foreign trade, submits passively to the consequences of the fortunes of the dollar, which appreciates or depreciates according to the policy of the US government.
The truth is that the European Monetary Union is not backed by a European power, with a sphere of influence that is dependent on Europe for its security and development, into which Europe can channel resources, and with which it can intensify trade, adopting the euro as an international currency.
Obviously, the urgent need for a European power with the capacity to act is dictated by more than just this need to strengthen the international role of the euro; it is also linked to the question of internal control of the currency.
As things stand at the moment, the single currency has been left in the hands of a technical body, whose only role is to keep inflation in check. This body urgently needs to be joined by a political body that, governing the real economy and promoting its growth, is in a position to influence the value of the currency. This body must have its own budget, funded by direct taxation of the citizens, the size of which will depend not on difficult agreements between countries whose sole concern is to contribute as little as possible to the Union, but instead be decided democratically at European level. It must be equipped to counter negative economic trends with a policy that is effective, and not strangled by the obligation (in reality, often not fulfilled) to adhere to the parameters of a Stability Pact imposed as a result of the absurd co-existence of a single currency and a number of sovereign states, each with responsibility for its own economic policy. It must have at its disposal the instruments needed to develop and put into practice a great infrastructural design capable of re-launching the European economy.
The economic decline of the eurozone is paralleled by its technological inferiority to the United States, especially marked in the sectors of information networks, space exploration and the biotechnologies, and increasingly to China, which has recently approved an ambitious space programme. It must be underlined that the degree of technological progress recorded by Europe, the United States and China, shows, in all three cases, absolutely no relationship with the size of the respective country’s GDP. This is because great technological progress can be achieved only if it is actively promoted by the public powers, and adopted and developed by industry only when it has reached a level at which it allows the production of goods and services for which there is a potential market. This is what happened not only in the obvious case of the space programmes, but also in that of the Internet, which started out as a military project, and in that of the biotechnologies, which have evolved thanks to public funding of research conducted in the laboratories of universities, research centres and hospitals. Technology is thus able to evolve when the resources of a large, developed (or developing) market are coordinated and employed by an applied research policy conceived to support a design capable of mobilising the resources of an entire country.
It cannot evolve in Europe — with the exception of the odd success in the field of space research — because in the technological sphere, as in many others, the European countries have separate, intersecting and overlapping policies, whose funding is wholly inadequate. In truth, the European Union is a bureaucratic and not a political entity, and no one of its member states, being weak and impotent, is able to recruit the energies needed to support a great project for the future.
This situation naturally has repercussions on the sphere of basic research, which represents the necessary foundation of technology. There is no point dwelling upon the lamentable state of scientific research in Europe, which is widely known and demonstrated by the mass exodus of young researchers to the United States. All we will say is that Europe, which still has a valid secondary school and university system, pours money into the education of young scientists, only to lose them to the United States, whose secondary schools and universities, with the odd exception, are of a far lower standard. The United States is thus able to profit from the work of foreign-trained scientific personnel from the very moment these individuals, having represented a cost for the states in which they were schooled, become productive.
In fact, the technological and scientific decline of the eurozone is nothing more than the most obvious manifestation of the process that is turning its countries into a cultural wasteland. It is true that cultural decline in its broadest sense is something that is hard to establish, given that quantitative analysis of it is difficult and qualitative description inevitably subjective. There can also be no doubt that continental Europe has great traditions, deeply rooted in its history and cultural institutions, which enjoy notable prestige, acquired over decades and sometimes centuries, and which puts a brake on this inexorable decline. But it is also a fact that the arts, architecture, literature, the theatre, music, history, philosophy, and the social sciences follow the migration of power and wealth, and that they have now abandoned Europe in favour of the United States (a phenomenon less marked in the UK, thanks to Britain and America enjoying a “special relationship” and sharing the same language). It is a fact, too, that the leading cultural institutions in the United States are enjoying a boom — not only are they increasing in number, they are also becoming more wealthy and more active —, whereas the opposite is happening in Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic, there exists a wealthy public and a vast publishing market that together stimulate the creation of culture and feed cultural debate. America’s leading cities, New York in particular, have the irresistible attraction of being the most important stages of what is the last remaining great global power, and are thus the focus of the aspirations of all those seeking success and renown through the production of culture. As all this is going on, Europe is becoming increasingly impoverished and moving slowly towards its own curtain-fall.
At this point, one can hardly be surprised that a mood of demoralisation, due to the lack of future prospects, is creeping over the citizens of Europe, that the most talented of Europe’s youth is forced either to leave or to downsize its ambitions in accordance with the widespread mediocrity that prevails within the continent, or that there lack collective projects with the potential to stimulate as yet unexpressed skills and resources and to mobilise energies. Neither can one be surprised that this attitude generates a deep lack of faith in a political order that is unable to halt Europe’s downward slide and incapable of involving the citizens in a great design that represents an important step forward towards the liberation of mankind.
All this is the progressive decline of politics, politics being a term that, in Europe, now has nothing to do with the idea of the pursuit of the common good. Of its dual nature, based on ethos and kratos, all that remains is the power struggle aspect. And this, stripped of the values that ennoble it, appears merely repulsive. Politics is no longer about things that need to be done and objectives that must be pursued; instead it is degenerating into a sort of squalid theatre in which a political class without ideas is interested only in its own self promotion in the media. European politics today is preoccupied solely with image and with squabbling, putting on a spectacle for the benefit of a passive public that is incapable of reacting.
Civil society, in an advanced industrial state, is without doubt made up of men and women who are concerned, above all, with their own private affairs and their own welfare. But when the political climate heats up, and the issues are important, the citizens show themselves to be sensitive to the appeals and entreaties issued by the political class and by the most lively and active sections of society, and ready to be drawn into political debate. This is true not only when, like at election times, they are instruments in the struggle for power, but also in relation to the vicissitudes of everyday politics. The opposite occurs when politics is unable to come up with ideas or develop projects. In this situation, any willingness of the citizens to engage in political debate is repressed, or degenerates into sterile protest that is devoid of new ideas, or, at best, is channelled into non political voluntary work. When this happens, there is no point directing rhetoric at the citizens, and appealing to them to have confidence, unless you also show them a vision of a better future and the path that must be followed in order to attain it. Confidence cannot be built by delivering proclamations and vague incitements, but only by proposing a precise plan that, based on clear ideals, has real value and is thus likely to induce a great many people to become committed to its realisation.
It is therefore up to politics to reverse the trend, showing the citizens a clear and concrete objective that, once more taking the great values of European civilisation as the ultimate point of reference for political debate, gives meaning to the lives of all, and instils a sense of hope in the young. And given that Europe’s division is at the root of its decline, then this objective can only be the unification of the continent. Indeed, there can be no denying that the waning of public spirit in the European states has, quite clearly, gone hand in hand with the weakening of the ideal of European unification.
In order to render concrete and visible this project for our continent, European unification must not be allowed to remain an ambiguous and general term; instead, it must be synonymous with a clearly defined point of destination. Europe can regain a role on the international stage, give its currency a role comparable with that of the dollar, and give its citizens the feeling that they are contributing to the decisions determining the evolution of the process of the liberation of mankind, but only by becoming a leading actor in world affairs, by conducting a foreign policy that serves the values of peace, collaboration and development, and by rendering this policy credible through its control of an army that is answerable to a democratic power. It can inject new life into its economy, but only if it has its own budget and the power to fund this budget through taxation, rather than depending on the goodwill of the Union’s member states. In this way, it will be able to develop and carry through a great plan for internal and international economic development and an ambitious policy for technological advancement, which will render its production system once more competitive and foster a spirit of enterprise, without jeopardising the great achievements of the welfare state. In this way, it will regain the stimuli and the resources needed to get back to the cutting edge of scientific research and to become, once again, the world’s leading centre of artistic creation and cultural debate.
But to give a European government exclusive control of an army, that is, a monopoly on physical force, and to enable it to have at its disposal a budget of its own and the power of taxation, in other words, to give Europe the instruments of the sword and the purse, means to attribute it with sovereign powers. In short, to establish, in Europe, a federal state, beginning within the limited sphere in which this project is truly feasible, and ending with a great entity that embraces the territory of the entire European Union, whatever its configuration. Today, in Europe, the state exists only in the historically superseded national framework, that is, in a dimension that does not allow the development of great projects or the taking of great decisions, and that thus belittles the aspirations of its citizens and saps their energy; meanwhile, the dimension in which all this would be possible is filled with bureaucratic institutions, whose decisions, whenever they are arrived at, are expressions of slow and laborious compromises reached between the governments of numerous (formerly fifteen, now twenty-five) sovereign states, and not the result of democratic debate among the citizens of Europe and the parties that represent them.
The founding of a federal state in Europe is an enormously difficult objective. Like all the historical objectives that have required a radical transformation of the power order, it may even seem impossible. What is beyond doubt is that it cannot be achieved through technical fudging of the issues, which serves only to mask the reality, that is the nation-states’ continued preservation of their sovereignty.
In truth, no alliance, no confederation or customs union, no complex institutional construct — even one that goes by the name of constitution — can get round the fact that sovereignty is either left in the hands of the nation-states or transferred to Europe: and that this transfer can come about only if Europe becomes a state, even one based initially on a restricted group of countries set within a geographically expanding framework.
This is the only course that will not only enable Europe to face up to the great problems of international collaboration, security and economic growth, but also make politics once more synonymous with commitment to the common good, and thus the most noble of human activities. Only a state with a decisive role in the global equilibrium can devise and pursue a great design — internal or international — that gives citizenship the value of being involved in the promoting of peace and the building of an open, innovative and solid society, and by so doing gather consensus and mobilise energies.
This is why, today, the difficult battle to found a European federal state is the only one worth fighting.